The architect of President Barack Obama’s Cuba policy says President Donald Trump’s proposed changes are likely largely toothless and “a waste of time.”
But Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser, said Trump’s clampdown on travel and trade with Cuba will nonetheless damage America’s standing in the world—and represent an incoherent stand on promoting democracy from someone who has supported leaders like Turkish President Recep Erdoğan and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.
“Nobody believes that President Trump has a global concern about democracy,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes, who works for Obama’s post-presidency office and remains a top adviser, said he was speaking only for himself during a small meeting with reporters held in Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) office on the Hill. He said he doubted Obama would respond directly to Trump’s announcement on Cuba.
Asked about sparking yet another spat between Trump and Obama, Rhodes said, "that dynamic has been more on the part of the current administration than the former administration."
Responding to leaks that the new Trump policy, to be announced Friday in Miami, will require American tourists and companies to track the owners of any business with which money has been exchanged in order to ensure no money is going to entities controlled by the Cuban government, Rhodes said that would require significant new staff and financial resources to audit.
Given that, Rhodes predicted, “they may end up with a situation where they incur all of the symbolic cost around the world and inside of Cuba for modest or unenforceable changes.”
Those costs, Rhodes said, encompass not being prepared for coming regime change in Cuba, empowering hardliners in Havana who benefit from a fight with America, diminishing the gains in America’s reputation in Latin America that came from Obama’s Cuba reopening, and taking another step away from American leadership in the world just two weeks after announcing the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.
“Even though this may be a mini-rollback, you are sending the wrong message that we want to go back to the old days,” Klobuchar said.
Klobuchar expects that her bill to lift the travel ban with Cuba, reintroduced in the Senate, could get the 55 supporting senators it did last year before Trump’s election, but worries about the anti-Cuba climate the president is creating and the likelihood he would veto the bill may dampen that.
“What I’m concerned about is that reverse of momentum, not with the public, but in the House and Senate,” she said.
Rhodes snapped back at the idea, suggested by Cuba reopening critics like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), that he and the Obama administration were snookered by the Castro regime into a bad deal.
Importantly, Rhodes said, the United States neither lifted the embargo nor returned Guantanamo Bay—“the fundamental things that really have been the thorn in the Cuban government’s side remained in place,” he argued, adding that the Cubans pushed him hard on both during his negotiations.
Rhodes said that what the regime lost was the ability to position itself as fighting the United States.
“Now Trump is giving that back to them,” Rhodes said. “They will be able to say, ‘They’ve gone back to being the United States that beats up on people and tells them what to do.’”